As we begin planning Thanksgiving dinner for our families, most of us begin by picking out the biggest, fattest turkey we can find. We begin making shopping lists for ingredients as we pull out family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. Grocery store isles are filled with yams, cans of pumpkin puree and cranberry sauce, potatoes and other ingredients for our Thanksgiving favorites.
But what we often forget is that the Thanksgiving festivities of today are a far cry from what happened on the very first Thanksgiving. It has been nearly 400 years since the Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth for an autumn harvest celebration with the newly arrived Pilgrims in November of 1621. No one has an exact list of what would have been included in the original spread, but historians are certain that the Pilgrims and the Native Americans enjoyed duck, goose, passenger pigeons and venison at the first Thanksgiving feast.
The Wampanoag guests arrived at the first Thanksgiving feast with five fire-roasted deer as an offering for the festivities. The fire roasting of the venison would have added an amazing smoky finish to the meat. Using herbs, onions or nuts readily available in their wild surroundings, the Pilgrims and American Indians flavored their dishes. They also would have been flavored dishes with salt, cinnamon, ginger, liverwort, leeks, pepper and nutmeg.
Along with the fowl and venison, there would have been seafood that was readily available along the shores of Plymouth. Mussels were abundant in New England and were easily harvested as they clung to rocks that lined the shoreline. They frequently served mussels, eel, lobster, bass, oysters, and clams with curd, a product of soured milk that resembles a soft, white cheese. Curd was a suitable substitution for butter, as butter was not abundantly available at the first Thanksgiving celebration.
The first Thanksgiving was a celebration that marked the Pilgrims’ first harvest, so the meal would have included foods that would have been grown with the help of the Native Americans that took the time to teach the pilgrims how to grow food in this new world. Local vegetables that most likely were a part of the celebration were onions, beats, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and carrots. Corn would have been part of the meal but was more often used in those days as cornmeal. It was used to either make cornbread or it was boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge.
One of the must-haves at most modern Thanksgiving celebrations is pumpkin pie. The roots of traditional pie actually do run all the way back to the original feast, but not as a pie. The colonists would not have had access to the ingredients for a crust, but pumpkin was readily available. Historians have accounts that show early English settlers would hollow out pumpkins, fill the shells with milk, spices, and honey to make a custard, and then roast the gourd in a pile of hot ashes, creating a custard that could be eaten as a dessert.
Pilgrims had open fires and spits to prepare the first Thanksgiving feast. Smaller birds would have been roasted on spits over open fires while larger birds would have been boiled first and finished over an open fire to add a smoky flavor.
Turkey and other fowl may have been baked into a pie, but not in the way we traditionally think about modern pies. Again, there were no ingredients to make crust. It would have been a dish stuffed with meat and various ingredients to add texture and flavor.
Potatoes were not on the table in the 1621 celebration. As hard as it is to imagine a Thanksgiving without potatoes, the dish had not yet made it onto the tables in North America at this point. Potatoes made their way onto the Thanksgiving scene 200 years later when Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the lady’s magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book, successfully petitioned the president to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday, as a way to bring the country back together after the Civil war.
A lot has changed since the first Thanksgiving celebration. So, as you celebrate with your loved ones this Thanksgiving, maybe giving them a taste of what the original Thanksgiving feast would be a fun way to create memories and remind them of our humble beginnings.